Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Jennifer Pastiloff talks about her extraordinary essay about losing her hearing, Karaoke yoga, how everything scares her but she does it anyway, and so much more

I first heard of Jennifer Pastiloff because everyone on Facebook was talking about her essay  on dealing with her hearing loss. It was so brave, so beautifully written, that I wanted to talk to her. Jennifer also is the creator of Manifestation Yoga and Karaoke Yoga (how fun does that sound?) and she runs writing and yoga retreats. I'm so thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Jennifer!

What sparked you to write such a brave essay now?

I was leading one of my retreats. It was November. The Galapagos. It was a hard time for many reasons; one being that I had recently gone through an ectopic pregnancy. I started writing the essay while I was there on th Santa Cruz Island. I’d be sitting on my bed, sipping on Galapagos coffee (deliciously strong), and I kept thinking about how hard it was for me to hear during the tours of the various islands. The guides often had thick Ecuadorian accents, and if I wasn’t right up in front with my hearing aids turned up, I couldn’t hear what they’d be saying about lava or iguanas or tortoises. I felt disempowered and frustrated and sorry for myself. I’ve written about my hearing loss before but never really tried to describe it like I did in this essay for The Nervous Breakdown. I write a lot about loss- which is kind of funny because I have a reputation of being “positive” (you know, being a yoga teacher and all) and I write, what I think to be, some really dark things that almost always have an underlying theme of loss. It’s like this quote by Mary Oliver that I love: “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”

My dead father seems to enter into every thing I have ever written. He won’t leave. Recently I was leading a retreat in Costa Rica. My assistant and I were really moved by this older man who ran the retreat where we stayed at on our last night in San Jose. I called him Grandpa. He was so kind to us that we kept tearing up. “Look at us with our pathetic father shit,” I’d say.
But really. Look at us with our pathetic father shit, I keep thinking.

So, the pathetic in me needs to write again after so many years of hiding from it in a restaurant. The pathetic in me has something to say about grief and the way we put it in our bodies and move through the world and how we assimilate it and how it changes shapes. The pathetic in me wants to talk about how losing a parent so young can break you and shape you in all sorts of ways and how there isn’t a narrative for that because once you’re say, my age now, 39, you’re meant to kind of like get the fuck over it. The pathetic in me wants to say that I am not pathetic at all, that I’m human, like you, and that we’re in this together. Yes, hearing loss is also on that loss-spectrum for me, as is my history with anorexia. I’m fascinated by how we move forward from loss.

So I’d be sitting on the bed with this little journal I had taken from Canyon Ranch the month before (I’m the guest speaker there a couple times a year and I always leave with a bunch of  “Canyon Ranch” notebooks which end coffee-stained and bent) and all hopped up on caffeine, I’d try and turn my pain into art. It took me a few tries with this essay.

I lived many years in denial about my hearing loss. I was ashamed. It made me feel like less than a person. Which, looking back is ridiculous, but it’s how I felt for a long time. Sometimes I still do. I get flack for not paying attention when the truth is that I just I can’t hear. I can’t hear when I am in a group or a class setting or a movie. When I am the teacher, it’s a different story since I am in control.
 As far as brave goes, thanks for saying that. I try and write as honestly as I can. I usually wake up the next day (if it’s been a published piece) and have some kind of panic attack. Like: What have I done? I wrote this piece for Salon on struggling with depression, and I wanted to hide under a rock after it went up. But ultimately, I was glad because it created a dialogue about depression and mental health that often still has a stigma. I also realized that people decide things about us (we all do it- we make up stories, we create things in our mind about others) and that people looked at my life (especially on social media) and thought it was perfect and amazing. Looking at my Facebook it seems that I am always going somewhere new, I get to travel and get paid for it, I sell out workshops all over.

But they aren’t there when I am hemorrhaging on the floor, or so depressed I can’t get out of bed, or helping my sister deal with her son who has special needs, or helping to support my family or any of the other things that I don’t post. And that’s okay. But I thought I would tell the truth. Here’s who I am. I think that’s important. I am not suggesting that everyone walks around vomiting their secrets or over-sharing (which is sometimes mistaken as good writing) but rather, they tell the truth. Most of us hide who we are for way too long. If it’s done right, an essay or memoir, or whatever it may be, the person reading it will be pumping their fist to the sky going Yes Yes, because they recognize some truth, either about themselves or the world. Anyway, I aim to be brave. Sometimes I get scared and fall short but I want to have that be my legacy. I want to leave a mark that says Truth teller.

What's your writing life like?
Well, today I am working on my memoir. What does that look like? Well, it looks like answering your questions. Ha!  I am wildly disorganized and chaotic

I have been going through a hard time the past few months- I was depressed (I had recently gone off my anti-depressants to get pregnant and to see if I needed them for certain) and then I broke my foot.  The foot break was shitty, sure, but it was like I was perched on this cliff of despair and the break just pushed me over. I was in the pit of hell with a hideous pair of crutches and a boot cast. It wasn’t the break, per se, it was just that it was the proverbial straw. Me being the camel. So the past couple months I haven’t written anything and I feel guilty and bad about that so I spend many hours lamenting that instead of actually writing. The Jew in me loves/hates/loves this cycle of obsessing.
I am finally emerging from the darkness and getting back into my writing life. I write whenever and wherever I can. Best on airplanes, which I am on a lot. The white noise, which drowns out my tinnitus, the lack of internet, the fact that I can’t get up and make a sandwich or go lie in bed or clean my ridiculous desk.

Do you have rituals?
I have to be surrounded by other writers and people who inspire me, which is why I have so many books and photographs on my desk and by my feet and my bed and on the floor.
I give lavender oil out at the end of my yoga classes. Every single one, for the last five years. That’s a ritual. I love the idea of ritual.

At night I light a candle. The nightly candle (and wine) is probably the closest I come to a Jen ritual. You’d think being a yoga teacher I might have more woo woo rituals, maybe involving sage and nudity. I guess my compulsive Facebooking is a bad ritual

What are you working on now? 

I am working on my memoir, tentatively titled Beauty Hunting. I created this project a couple years back called The 5 Most Beautiful Things Project where I encouraged people to be beauty hunters. To tell more beautiful stories. To look for the beauty instead of the shit, or inside of the shit. Holocaust Survivor Victor Frankl was able to mentally survive living in a concentration camp by finding beauty in a fish head floating in his soup. In a fish head. So I figured I should be able to find it on the 405 in Los Angeles. And I encouraged others to do the same and tweet them to me. Or write them down. Anything just so that we were paying attention and actively looking for it. So my memoir, at the moment is a mess. I am trying to figure out how to pull it all together. The idea is that there is beauty inside all of it. I don’t think we overcome loss- we learn to get out of bed, how to take it into our bodies and perhaps transform it. I wanted to have the book done by this summer but that isn’t looking great. Maybe if I get off Twitter and Facebook. Ha!

I also run my blog The Manifest-Station, which I write for, sometimes, but mostly these days it’s guest posts. I have some incredible authors on there. Would love to have you! Some days we are getting 20k hits a day. It’s pretty much a full time job sifting through the submissions and getting the stuff up but luckily I have help from two other writers.

On the site there is also a new feature called The Converse-Station, where writers interview other writers. It’s a goldmine. Check it out!
I write for a magazine and a couple other sites and blogs (The Rumpus etc) but I am really trying to focus now on my book and my retreats/workshops. I have yet to master being in two places at once but it hasn’t stopped me from trying. I am working on creating the retreat that I am co-hosting with Lidia Yuknavitch. Totally exciting and different. We will definitely be focusing on “brave” for sure.

What scares you about your writing? And what gives you solace?

What scares me? Everything. Yet I do it any way. I think? This interview scares me. I am telling myself that people are going to read it and think I’m this or that. Then I tell myself a quote that I say to my yoga classes all the time, “It’s worse than you think. They’re not thinking about you at all.” 

I am scared of my memoir- which is why I haven’t finished yet. I am scared that I have created this following with thousands of people who expect a certain something from me and what if I can’t deliver? Or, what if I tell the truth and I lose my “following.” Following is such a gross expression. My followers- what a crock of shit, right? What I mean is- I am scared to expose myself. 

I am scared that I don’t know what I am doing. I am scared that I don’t have an MFA. I am scared that I don’t know how to type. Yes, I decided that for you I would be fiercely honest. I. Do. Not. Know. How. To. Type. I hunt and peck. I don’t know how this happened- but it did. And it makes me feel stupid. I’m scared that I’m going to mess up. I am scared that I have run out of things to say. I’m scared that I have made too many mistakes.

What gives me solace? That every time I tell the truth or put myself out there, no matter how much I want to throw up in a bucket, I feel like I did good in the world. That’s what we all want, isn’t it? I did good. I told the truth. Now, of course “good” is subjective but that’s a whole other ballgame.
I also find solace that as much as I think I suck, and probably tons of people also think I suck, there are a lot of people who do not think I suck. Who respond to my writing. To know that you have affected someone- isn’t that everything? I have an expression that I say: Don’t wallow in your own suckery.

Because I do. We all do, right? But the thing is, we don’t suck. Well, maybe sometimes (ha) but certainly not all the time. I find solace that I do not suck all the time.

I find solace in other writers- writers who are encouraging, generous, risk-takers. Roxane Gay is one. Gina Frangello, another. Cheryl Strayed, Heather Fowler, Emily Rapp, Rob Roberge, Gayle Brandeis, Leslie Jamison, you. So many. I find solace in that there are people paving the way. I find solace in you- as a reader, and as a writer. You read my piece and reached out to me. That’s not nothing. I find solace in a lot. As equally as I am disheartened by “being a writer” I find it gratifying and exciting.

You also lead yoga retreats! As someone who was yelled at (really! yelled ) in an intro yoga class for not "challenging herself by doing a headstand", I want to ask, what would you say to a yoga-shy person like myself to convince me to try it again?

This is such an interesting question. Because immediately I want to say “Well, Caroline, they aren’t really yoga….” But I will stop myself. I encourage people in my workshops/retreats not to put themselves into boxes. That it doesn’t matter what we are called, what label we have been given. I say “Look at me. I made this wacky thing up that has no way to describe it. It’s yoga and writing and sharing and crying and dancing and sometimes wine drinking and yet my retreats are sold out even though they can’t really be named or called proper yoga retreats.” Having said that, I find myself going, “ But Caroline, I am Jen The Writer. Not Jen The Yoga Teacher. Please see me as that.” Such bullshit! It does not matter.

So yes, I lead yoga retreats. It’s called The Manifestation Retreat: On Being Human. I change the subheading a lot. It used to be If I Wasn’t Afraid. I use the body/yoga as context to get people to open up and connect and become more vulnerable. So I get them all hot and sweaty and then ask them to stop, drop and write. There is a ton of writing and sharing out loud. It’s for any level of yogi or writer. I tell people, “You don’t have to be a yogi, you just have to be a human.” A lot of writers come and have written essays from the various prompts and experiences within the workshops. It’s beautiful.
I would say to you, if you wanted to come on a retreat or workshop (which I hope you do. My NYC one is Sep 27  and it isn’t about the poses at all. And anyone who has been can vouch for that. I could give a rat’s ass if you know how to downward dog. The yoga part is just a vehicle for me. I do teach some public classes while I am here in L.A. at Equinox, when I am not travelling, that are straight yoga. As straight yoga as I am capable of doing. Ha. The funny part is this, and I feel like a cab driver who says “But I really want to direct movies” when I say this, but: I never wanted to be a yoga teacher. It fell into my lap and then I turned it into something else. Sometimes I guess we get to where we are going by an avenue we had no idea even existed.

Do you know this piece? It’s one of my favorites. I read it at every workshop:
Autobiography In Five Short Chapters
Chapter I  
I walk down the street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I fall in.
 I am lost... I am hopeless.  
It isn't my fault.
 It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter II  
I walk down the same street.
 There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I pretend I don't see it.
 I fall in again.
 I can't believe I am in this same place.
 But it isn't my fault. 
It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter III  
I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I see it there.
 I still fall in... it's a habit... but,
my eyes are open.
 I know where I am.
 It is my fault.
 I get out immediately.
Chapter IV 
I walk down the same street.
 There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I walk around it.
Chapter V 
I walk down another street.- Portia Nelson

What's obsessing you now and why?

What am I not obsessing on is a better question! I am obsessing on if I should have kids. We have talked about this, I know, but here I am saying it out loud (not sure if anyone is even reading this far so maybe it isn’t out loud but just between you and I again.) I am almost 40. I am also obsessing on that. I feel like there is a bomb on my chest everyday saying baby baby baby tick tick tick. I travel almost twice a month and have this really vigorous schedule. I don’t know how I would pull it off yet I am terrified to wake up at 50 and regret it. I want to write to Dear Sugar but I think she did a column on this one. The thing is- I am not 29. I am 39. Also; on my book. Like, what if I never do it? Wayne Dyer has a phrase (his daughter Serena just wrote a book using it as a title) which says, “ Don’t die with your music still in you.” I worry about that.

I am also obsessing on money and if people like me and if I can ever get my apartment cleaned up or will I always be living under a mountain of papers and crap? And my body and what’s going to happen to my nephew who has Prader Willi Syndrome as he gets older and how I wish I read more books and my husband’s films getting made. My mind. It’s a fun house.
I obsess that I don’t read enough newspapers. I obsess that my brain is being shrunk and made into putty from the interwebs. I obsess that I am dying. That I am going to go fully deaf and what will that be like?

Then, when I get my head out of my ass I obsess on what is going on in Gaza and Israel and planes being shot out of the sky and what can we do about it all?  Oh I have much more!

What is manifestation yoga? Karaoke Yoga?

Right off the bat I should tell you that I define manifest as making shit happen.
Manifestation Yoga: It’s a combination of yoga and writing. I was basically a career waitress (same place for 13 years) and within a very short period of time, I am where I’m at now. I am no millionaire by any stretch, but hey, I taught two sold out workshops in London this year, 5 months apart. I led sold out retreats all over the world. I realized that I made that shit happen. That’s how I define manifest, as I said earlier. It’s not some woo-woo thing. Part of it is daydreaming, yes. Visualizing what we want. Why shouldn’t we do that? Give yourself goose bumps, you know? I do when I think about my dreams: a New York Times Bestseller, being on a book tour, being financially free. I love imagining those things. But that’s not solely it- the imagining. It requires a lot of work and chutzpah and balls and saying Fuck you to fear and choosing the right people to spend your time with and telling the truth. I incorporate all of that into my workshops. I say that Manifestation Yoga unpredictable and messy- like life.

I do workshops all over (I leave Thurs for Atlanta, then NYC, Sioux Falls in South Dakota, London, Dallas, Miami etc.) The retreats I do in Ojai, California, Bali, Italy, Mexico, Costa Rica, Vermont (with author Emily Rapp), Galapagos, to name some of the places. Hey, and you know what? I am really proud of myself because say, ten years ago, I was on the path to death. Literally, I was a walking dead person. So, I’m proud of myself that I’m here. And that I am not serving veggie burgers anymore. And that I created something called Manifestation Yoga that wasn’t a thing in the world but is now a thing. We can all do that. I hope we remember that more often.
I am actually over the moon though because as I type this, I am finalizing the details on another retreat that I am leading with one of my favorite humans ever: Lidia Yuknavitch. It’s going to be The Body + Writing Retreat and totally out of your comfort zone, raw, messy, delicious. It’ll be in Ojai, California, at the winery I do my Manifestation Retreats Jan 31 to Feb 1, 2015. I am astounded but not really surprised by the interest as Lidia is a game changer.  She is remarkable. Talk about brave!

Karaoke Yoga is a ridiculous thing I made up. (I have a partner in the company named Gina Mooring who is the dj.) Basically, I encourage people to sing in my classes. If Free Falling was on by Tom Petty, and they were in a tree pose, I’d say “singing makes it easier to balance.” And they’d sing. I generally attract light-hearted people to my classes. Thankfully I am not an asshole magnet. I feel extremely lucky that I get to teach the people who walk through my door.

So, I heard there were doing Karaoke with spinning class so I suggested it for yoga. And just like that, an idea was born. Meanwhile, Good Morning America asked me if they could put it on the show. So, they flew out from NYC and filmed my class and guess what? We had never done it. It was the first time and it was on national television. But that’s how I operate. Roll with it. Fake it ‘till you make it. Have a sense of humor about yourself. We kept getting more and more publicity for it. The thing is- it is silly and absurd but totally empowering and freeing and fun! Everyone sings at the same time (the words are on a screen at the front of the room) and no one cares what they sound or look like. Not to sound cheesy but it’s total freedom. People leave the class high as a kite. Uninhibited and free. It’s a blast. I am convinced that if we let ourselves be ridiculous a little more, we’d be happier. If we cared less what everyone else thought. I am the worst singer. And I always try and sing the loudest.

Part of your job description is "great listener." Talk about that, please.
Why is it so important to listen, to really hear what people are saying?

Because I struggle with sound so much, because I always feel lost, because I never felt heard growing up. There are so many reasons. I think most of us just want to be heard. A huge part of my workshop/retreat is listening. People sharing out loud and rest of us just listening. And that is when we learn the most. I realized that even though I am mostly deaf that I hear better than most. In the workshop I scoot over on my ass and get up all in your face so I’m right there with you. We need that. As a writer, as a reader, as a teacher, as a human- we need to listen.

I wrote this once:  I can hear the quiet in between the quiet, the arches of eyebrows, the pursing of lips. I can hear the music of unspoken gestures, the tick-tock of need, the roaring of lust, the whining of dissatisfaction. I can hear the tree frog sound of anger even though your mouth, moving in circles, eludes me.

The joy of quiet is something my friend Naomi Shihab Nye spoke of when I heard her speak at UCLA last spring. She loved the essay I wrote about my hearing loss on The Nervous Breakdown, and it struck me hearing her talk of the joy of quiet, that she, along with myself, must think of bursts of silence as holy things. The moderator asked Naomi how she finds quiet in the madness of the world. Oh, it’s to be found, she said. And I thought how the quiet is in itself a found art.
I am so unwilling to let myself get quiet most days and combined with the constant ringing in my ears, it seems as if my head is a carnival of sound. Nonstop chatter. I decided I must excavate quiet, I must unearth it and actively look for it as I do with the 5 Most Beautiful Things Project.I have been walking to the beach. I have been meditating. I have been listening. It’s nice.

You also do yoga retreats. What's surprised you the most about them?

That we hardly do any yoga at them. Ha!! The thing is- yoga is all of it, right? Not just the handstands and the warriors and the pigeon poses. It’s the connection, the listening, the union. That’s what yoga means- union. I used to be scared that if I said “It’s NOT a typical yoga retreat” that people wouldn’t come. Once I let go of that fear and let it be what it was, they came in droves. And I got more confident with what I wanted to do in the world and the risks I wanted to take. And I took them. And still they come. Even though there is sometimes not very much “yoga.”

The connections between the people surprised me. The bond created is like nothing I have witnessed. Ever. I do my best to create a safe space and that makes vulnerability possible.  There’s a quote, I think it’s Freud, that says, “ How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.” The friendships that have been formed are deeper than I could have ever dreamed.

 I am really excited for the retreat with Lidia. I think it is going to open up a whole new world. More info at on that. I am on Twitter/instagram at @jenpastiloffFB  My blog The Manifest-Station is
Thank you, Caroline. You are a love.j


Lindsey said...

Oh, Jen - this is so, so wonderful and wise and inspiring. I love the way you speak the truth. No matter what. And I so get what you're saying on the dissonance between what things look like and what they ARE. More than once I've experienced the treacherous gulf between those two things. I love what you say about silence too. That's been much on my mind lately. xoxo

JessicaHilt said...

Amazing and so inspiring. My favorite part is about manifesting without the "woo-woo". Hilarious and yet very true.

Barbara Potter said...

I love this so much. Thank you.